What if the winner didn’t take it all?

In the middle of last year, I joined SheEO — a global network of “radically generous women building a $1B perpetual fund working on the world’s to-do list.” Basically, we’re a bunch of women who want to invest in making the world, and our prospects within it, a better place by supporting each other and sharing capital, resources and connections to do it. 

Founded in 2015 in Canada, SheEO is now active in four other regions (NZ, US, Australia and UK) with 7,000 investors who have supported 107 ventures with more than $7m of capital. As Canadian founder Vicki Saunders says, “To get to the new solutions for the world’s most pressing social issues; we need to shed our ‘winner takes all culture’ that has resulted in 5 men having the same wealth as half the planet! 51% of the population are women. Yet, we receive 2.2% of the capital. This is statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”

I love everything about being part of this fantastic network; the shared spirit of radical generosity; the scope of the founders’ vision; the wide variety of women involved – all ages, races and cultures are welcome; the feeling of being part of something that is making things happen, not just a gabfest. I’ve been a member of a fair few networks in my lifetime, but never one that has so wholly fulfilled its promise. We are genuinely a community of support where people with something to give offer it, and people who need something feel free to ask. 

I’m what’s known as an “Activator”. Activators invest a fixed amount each year which goes into our own region’s pool of money. This pool supports emerging female entrepreneurs launching or growing businesses that create the socially and environmentally sustainable models of the future. Selected entrepreneurs receive 0% loans. Repaid loans — to date, there has been a 95%  repayment rate — are paid forward, augmenting the available pool of money. Funded businesses get coaching and development support. Most of all, they get access to a global community of women who support them as customers, advisors, connectors and fans. 

What’s great is that everything is on our terms. You can be as involved as you want to be. Ventures are free to build their companies according to their values. Activators support when and how they can, including being involved in selecting companies receiving loans. Everyone commits to showing up with radical generosity to bring out the best in each other.

I just saw the breakdown of ages of the entrepreneurs in my New Zealand region who have received funding and was thrilled to see nearly 28% of them are women over 50. It’s heartwarming to see increasing numbers of women shrugging off the cloak of invisibility that age seems to drape over our shoulders, leaving us marginalised and without a voice. I co-founded a tech start-up at 51 and cannot for the life of me see why more of us don’t give it a go. For sure, it’s risky and exhausting, but also exhilarating and most definitely character building. As George Eliot so famously said, “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.”

Not everyone is cut out to take this sort of leap, particularly at a life stage when the prudent are squirrelling away maximum quantities of nutritious nuts to see them through their retirement season. But the world is changing rapidly, and establishing a business for good is one way to make your mark on how the changes roll out. Unlike so many things these days, I believe this is binary: we change for good or bad. The choice is ours — by embracing radical generosity and supporting the people who can and want to make it a change for good, we can get beyond all the inequities that exist. With a spirit of radical generosity, we can cut across tribal boundaries, hates and discriminatory mindsets and ignore the fake news and conspiracies.With radical generosity as a philosophy, they become irrelevant and we can break the winner-takes-it-all model. With radical generosity, we can stop fixating on past mistakes and concentrate on building bridges, negotiating with each other kindly and creating meaningful communities of mutual support with a shared vision of the world we want to see. 

Thanks to Saba.com for the header image.

The surprising seductiveness of slow

I nearly wrote a letter last weekend. What? Yes … an honest to God, old fashioned paper-based communication intended for distribution by snail. In the event, I didn’t. The digital habits of a fair chunk of my lifetime got in the way and I sent an email instead.

The impulse was triggered by reading that a lot of teenagers, missing their mates during the lockdown, re-discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written notes. In the isolation of their homes, apparently many found letters to be more intimate and emotionally connecting than texting, ‘social’ media posting and similar. Thinking about it unlocked the ghost of letters past that’s clearly still lurking inside me, and the memory of how much I used to enjoy getting mail. This chain reaction concluded in my close encounter with a blank page. 

The article transported me back to the heart-lifting discovery of a hand-written letter nestling seductively in one’s letterbox. Then the ritual of finding the right place to read it; a, secluded place under a tree. curled up in a big squishy chair in front of a roaring fire, or even a sweet scented, candlelit bath. The setting depended on the relationship with the sender — family, friend, lover, admirer — and the season. There was always that gorgeous moment of holding back, of prolonging the anticipation before finally ripping into the letter. Often there would be a quick scan of the contents for anything scary or sensational, before settling into a leisurely read through.

Good letters take time to craft. The best are intimate and personal. From soul to soul. As the words gather momentum they open avenues to the unburdening of our hopes and fears, loves and hates, joys and sorrows and the feeling of connection as we share the minutiae of our days. There’s something about the flow of a pen over paper that is missing altogether from keyboard bashing. Lacking a delete button, there was a need for precision and coherence of thought. Although the growing pile of screwed up paper as errors or uncertain confidences were cast aside spoke volumes on that score. There was an almost hedonistic pleasure in the first the first stroke of a fountain pen on a blank sheet of high quality paper. Or the challenge of writing in tiny letters to pack as much as possible onto those impossibly small pre-paid airmail letters that you folded up and licked the stuck tabes which stuck it all together. You were lucky if you managed to do this without acquiring a paper cut on your tongue. ‘Nanny state’ would probably have something to say about that these days.

Sorry planet — I know how wasteful and unnecessary this feels now in this device-laden era where resources are diminishing as fast as pack ice in the Arctic and the tyranny of air miles is never far from our minds. But email just doesn’t hack it as a substitute for a neatly tied bundle of letters from a loved one or a box full of the most memorable greetings cards. I still have swags of each. Even if you print emails, they just don’t have the same bang for buck. 

I’m a bit worn out by life in the ‘fast lane’. Living through the lockdown has seemingly awakened a sleeping dragon in many of us — the surprising seductiveness of slow. A nostalgia for bygone pleasures: the allure of a trip to a library; being literally lost in a good book; sitting down with friends and family over a leisurely and carefully crafted meal rather than shovelling in some hastily acquired takeaway or dashboard dining option. Most of all, there’s all too little of the ultimate luxury; reflective time, something that is considered to be essential to our health and wellbeing.

This morning, I woke up with the poem Leisure by W H Davies rattling around in my head. Although I learned this ‘by heart’ at primary school, it’s meaning pretty much passed me by as a ten-year-old, but it resonates strongly now. I’m sure my teacher would have been highly gratified! The poem was published in 1911. In the opening lines, the poet asks, “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” What indeed! The thrust of the poem is that the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit because there’s no time to appreciate the glory of the natural world around us. (Read Poem).

Willian Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer who grew up in a highly dysfunctional (though not poor), family. He dropped out and spent a significant part of his early life as a homeless drifter on both sides of the Atlantic”. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908, is about Davies’ life in the US between 1893 and 1899. Apparently, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times during this period, working his passage on cattle ships, then travelling through many of the states, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, often spending any savings on drinking binges with fellow travellers. They didn’t teach us this in school by the way — we might have paid more attention if we’d know a bit more about his colourful life. It would likely have seemed pretty romantic to the impressionable kids we were. Davies became one of the most popular poets of his time by drawing on his observations about life’s hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his tramping adventures and the characters he met. 

It has to be said, I lust after ‘slow’ until I remember what life was like without the convenience of Google as an information source. without which Mr. Davies would have remained an enigma to me. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t go back to the pre-internet/digital era. There’s just too much that is genuinely better about now. But I do hope that we can hold on to some of the specialness of slow as we move on through this pandemic. To have time to see and enjoy the moment, to revel in our lives and in nature and the endless possibilities on offer. To take the time to share our dreams and disappointments with loved ones by whatever means are to hand, snail or otherwise. To have the luxury to simply stand and stare and understand how infinitely precious it all is … and how easily lost.

May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!

 

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

Ghosts from Christmases past #2: Hip hip hooray!

Spending Christmas in hospital would not high on my Dear Santa wish list. I apologise in advance to all those dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses who are rostered on through holidays to look after the hapless hoardes who are ill or break themselves at Christmas. Nope, those guys do a heroic job. But hospital at Christmas – it’s just not living the dream is it? It has to be said, I have been one of the hapless Christmas A&E admissions, having snapped my Achilles tendon on holiday on Christmas Eve a few years ago and I was truly grateful (a) that it happened in the early morning so I wasn’t competing with all the drunks that clog the system later in the day/night and (b) that those dedicated and wonderful types were with great good grace (amen) to put this Humpty together again without any kings’ horses or men in sight.

Still and all, a festive hospital visit is just not anyone’s top choice as a holiday destination. And yet, fifteen years ago, it actually was. I needed what is amusingly referred to as ‘elective surgery’. Elective because you can, in theory, choose whether to have it or not, and when, as the condition doesn’t need to be dealt to at a particular time — i.e. it isn’t life threatening. The whole elective thing is laughable. Big yeah right! In many cases there is a choice, but that happens when your surgeon accepts that your pain is so extreme that you’d likely go insane if you had to bear it for a nano-second longer.

To give you the back story, I had both hip joints replaced in my late thirties. I was unusually young, but by no means unique. There were a number of things wrong with me each one of which on its own wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but collectively combined to wreck the joints. Because of my age, my surgeon held the surgery off as long as he could because he was worried about future complications — the prostheses only last so long and there are only so many times you can effectively replace the replacements because apparently you run out of femur to play with (sorry if this is a little close to the … er … bone for some). It was all about probabilities. How long the replacement joints would last, how long I would live If the first was shorter than anticipated and the latter longer, I faced seeing my life out in a wheel chair. In any case, my condition deteriorated at a rate that would have made an Apollo Space Craft seem laboured. Movement became very limited, quality of life nose-dived and ultimately the pain became so bad he relented. I had both of them ‘done’ within a year of each other. Happy days!

Anyway, the ops were a tremendous success. I got my life and mobility back, the pain was miraculously gone and I was a happy little camper. Then several years later comes ‘The Fall. Before you get worried about my state of innocence, I don’t mean fall in the Biblical sense. No, my fall was getting a bit carried away at an al fresco party and missed my footing in the dark on the edge of some concrete circle we’d turned into an impromptu dance floor. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I hadn’t landed so hard that one of my prostheses came loose. Back to limping, pain and the certainty of more surgery.

This time, there was no question of the surgeon putting up a fight — the revision clearly needed to be done and it was only a question of when. Luckily for me, I have a private health care plan which meant I really was in a position to choose a time that would be the least disruptive to my life. The first slot that my surgeon could offer was just before Christmas, meaning I would be in hospital for Christmas and Boxing Day. The next option was weeks away and, once I’d thought about it and got over the poor me aspect of it all, the Christmas timing was actually ideal. The private hospital I went to was very close to my house, so easy for family visits and minimal unscheduled time off work.

In all seriousness, apart from the fact that undergoing surgery of this sort is not a walk in the woods, once I’d got over the immediate effects of the anaesthetic and the post op trauma had passed, it was actually quite fun. I had a lovely big airy room on the corner of the hospital all to myself. The nurses were a great bunch, some were old friends from previous incarcerations. I think they were grateful to swop stories with someone who was under 85 to be honest as they dropped in more than was strictly necessary and we had a lot of laughs. It didn’t stop there. I had had more visitors than I probably would have had at home, and I didn’t have to lift a finger on the festive cooking front. The food wasn’t half bad, particularly a pretty yummy (for an institution) roast turkey dinner on the big day, washed down with one of those cute little miniature bottles of a hearty red and the decorations were pretty flash. Best of all, I didn’t have to suffer through all the endless repetitions of canned Christmas music. By the way, does anyone other than me find the whole idea that Santa sees you while you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake a bit creepy and stalkerish? Anyway, I was out by New Year and well into the familiar rehab routine.

Now that we’re in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there’s a bit of time to ruminate about stuff. This morning, in one of those desultory conversations one has with friends and family, my mother and I somehow meandered into comparing the vintage of our artificial joints. Tragic, I know but hips seem to be our family thing. We’ve all had them done. Big difference is when they were done; grandfather (late eighties and only one), father (early eighties and only one), uncle (well into his sixties and only one), mother (both — late fifties and early sixties) and sister (mid-fifties — one so far, but counting down to the next). Then there was me in my late thirties, not sure what happened there! Anyway, my mother’s first prosthesis is a venerable 25 whereas mine is a stripling at 20. No-one really knows how long they will last because everyone’s activity levels are different. Equally the vast majority of the recipients of artificial hips are quite old and so it’s difficult to measure average lifespans as the first one generally sees them out. However, 20 is thought to be a pretty good age, so mum and I were musing how much longer ours would hold out.

We also reprised a regular foray into imagining what our parallel universes would have thrown up  if this amazing technology had not been available to us. To be honest, It doesn’t bear thinking about. If we’d been born before the middle of the last century, we’d both likely be cripples, even if either of us was still alive.Early attempts at hip replacement were carried out in Germany in 1891 using ivory to substitute for the femur head. These were attached with nickel-plated screws, Plaster of Paris and glue. Hmmmm. Not surprising this approach didn’t take off. The pre-cursor to current techniques was pioneered in 1940 in South Carolina by US surgeon Dr Austin T Moore who performed the first metallic hip replacement surgery.  A more sophisticated version – the ‘Austin Moore Prothesis’ — was introduced in 1952 and is apparently still used occasionally. Like modern hip implants, it is inserted into the medullary canal of the femur, and depends on bone growth through a hole in the stem for long-term attachment. Another apology here if this creeps anyone out!

It’s always so tempting to think about the golden age that we perceive existed in our grand parents’ eras. Apparently, every generation since the newspapers rolled off the early printing presses felt this sort of nostalgia for imagined glories past, underlined by a fear of change and what it means for the future. Every time I get caught in this sentimentality for the halcyon past, all I have to do is think about my great good luck in living now and being on the receiving end of the incredible medical science and technology that is our norm. Even with all the problems we’re facing as a species, I’m grateful from the bottom of my soul that surgical advances have allowed me to live a full, pain free and normal life. When I think of Christmas miracles, my hospital experience in 2003 would have to be one of them. If we can achieve all this, surely we clever, inventive Simians, can find the tools to figure out the other stuff. Hip hip hooray to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts from Christmases past #1: What a cracker!

Earlier in the week I did one of my favourite parts of Christmas — delivering Christmas gifts for my (Moxie’s) Wellington-based clients. While I was arranging my gaudily sequined Christmas hat as jauntily as I could and wondering whether I could still get away with this look, I had one of those incredible déjà vu moments as I remembered a ghost of myself from a Christmas past.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, a lovely friend Daniella and I, resplendently festooned in Miss Christmas costumes, were hauling sacks of giant Christmas crackers around the streets of the City of London. We were delivering the contents of said sacks to commercial real estate agents and the crackers were a promotion to announce that the owners of one of the city’s newest tower blocks had decided to break down the floor space into smaller units for rent. Well, dear reader, what a buzz! Everyone was thoroughly into the festive spirit (some literally) and we turned heads, stopped traffic and generally had great banter with the people we passed. Lot of ‘you better be good for goodness sake’ sort of jive. It has to be said, the hats were coy, the skirts short, the heels high and the legs long. Of course, the clichéd red velvet and faux white ermine outfits had their own tacky but exotic allure. In these highly PC days donning we then this gay apparel might appear like the ultimate in objectification. Back then, we just saw it as a bit of harmless fun — it was for my business, no-one forced us and, in any case, we probably thought we looked ‘hot’ and enjoyed flaunting it. A whole topic for a different blog!

This cameo role was related to a business that I tried to help a friend’s son Ralph get off the ground. He’d already started it, but it wasn’t gaining traction beyond his immediate locale. We called it Absolutely Crackers!and the giant crackers for the city building were one of our biggest successes. In its short life span, Absolutely Crackers! really rocked the corporate promotions market — we made bespoke, weird and wonderful crackers for a range of iconic brands including Arsenal Football Club and top end chocolate manufacturer Charbonnel et Walker. Then there were the sumptuous crackers designed to match the splendour of art deco Pullman Carriages on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Fillers for these were white silk evening scarves for men and exquisite hand-painted ones for women from VSOE’s merchandise range. For a city broker, crackers made from the Financial Times were the perfect accessory for their annual bash.

The jewel in our crown was creating the invitations to CBS Records (now Sony Music) Christmas party in 1988. I don’t recall how we got in front of CBS — might have been via my then husband who was involved in music sponsorship — but we put together a very ambitions proposal for they invites which they, somewhat amazingly, accepted. In retrospect, they probably went for it because we ludicrously under-priced the whole gig.

The theme for the party was ‘Old English’ and, let me tell you, these weren’t just any old crackers. No, no, no, these were masterpieces of ingenuity and engineering. What we proposed, and they ultimately got, were individually boxed crackers — we designed a sleek triangular box to make them easy to post or courier to the who’s who of the musical world that were on the invitation list. In keeping with the theme, the crackers themselves were made from a beautiful burgundy and gold paisley patterned paper and the gifts were boxed miniatures of Glen Fiddich. Nice touch we thought even though Glen Fiddich is clearly not English. Nor is it even that old, having been founded in 1886, but good luck getting boxed miniatures of mead! Anyway, CBS seemed to agree that the single malt met the spirit … hem hem … of the occasion.

So far so good. The glory of the piece was the invitation which was hand-written by a calligrapher using medieval ornamentation on the lettering and then reproduced on parchment style paper. Most sane people would simply have rolled the invite up inside the cracker. Not us! No, we figured that to be authentic, they needed something else. So the invite was rolled, tied with red satin ribbon and then sealed using a custom designed CBS seal and traditional red sealing wax. The scroll this made was glued to the top of the cracker and the finished articles looked amazing.

And that’s where the wheels fell off. We had to assemble 350 of them. Anyone like to hazard a guess how long it takes to hand seal 350 parchment invitations? What calibre of satin ribbon can withstand the heat of the sealing wax being dripped onto it? No clue? We didn’t either. I can remember sitting at home at my kitchen table, the ceiling paint slowly blackening with the somewhat greasy smoke from the melting wax, my fingers progressively covering with Band Aids as the skin reddened and blistered, and the frustration grew as each ribbon sample melted down. I think we finished them off in the Board Room of my day job. (Happily I had a great boss who thought the whole cracker madness was great fun and might even have been the genius behind a device that got created to allow us to make about 10 ribbon seals simultaneously.) Anyway, the crackers were a huge hit even if we made no money out of them (on account of never having done anything like this before — has anyone?  — and not being able to price them effectively). But hey, luminaries like Mick Jagger and George Michael got our crackers … and what price a few first degree burns between superstar friends!

But how did crackers get incorporaed into the Christmas lexicon in the first place? It’s not like Matthew’s Gospel told us of wise men bringing gold, frankinsense, myhrr … and … er … crackers. You can sort of understand where Christmas trees and all the Easter paraphanalia like eggs and bunnies got adapted from the pagan festivals the Christian ones replaced. But crackers were unashamedly commercial. Wikipedia (bless) tells the story of how one Tom Smith was first to market.  He apparently created crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). But the novelty wore off, sales of bon-bons slumped, and Smith sought new promotional ideas. Apparently, he added the “snap” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by trinkets. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack), but quickly morphed into the onomatopoeic “cracker”. The other elements of the cracker we all know and (many of us) love —the gifts, paper hats and mottos — were all introduced by Walter Smith (Tom’s son) to differentiate their product from competitors who’d grasped the opportunity and got on the cracker bandwagon.

Back to Absolutely Crackers! Despite the genuine success of some of our promotions, the cracker empire never eventuated. Behemoth’s like Tom Smith still dominated the retail market and made it pretty much impossible for us to succeed. Without cracking (sorry couldn’t resist it) the retail market, relying on promotions was too random as they didn’t happen evenly during the year. Our vision was to make the cracker a ubiquitous part of the corporate party circuit, not just at Christmastime. Instead we coped with high stress peak times during October – December which, fun though they were … and they were … were also unsustainable. In any case, as with CBS, we didn’t really know how to price the jobs properly and lacked the confidence to just think of a big number and double it, then double it again, so we didn’t manage to build any reserves.

We did try quite hard to get into the ‘high end’ retailers like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Asprey but other independents peddling top of the line product, had got to them first. Asprey in particular offered eye-wateringly expensive crackers at around fifteen hundred quid for a dozen. Think gold plating and diamonds designed for wealthy Saudis! We didn’t have the working capital to really get stuck into this level of ostentation. In the end, we decided to throw in the towel and, with extreme regret, closed our little factory unit outside Hereford. I re-focused on my day job which likely pleased my long-suffering boss, and Ralph went off to study drama.

Despite this, I loved Christmas crackers  long after Absolutely Crackers! went to the big Christmas party in the sky and have re-prised my cracker making skills for family and friends on many occasions over the years. To me, specially designed crackers are like icing on the cake of my table setting themes. I also found them to be a very personal and loving way of wrapping carefully chosen gifts. I guess my feelings about table settings and crackers were akin to the way others offer love through food. However, it’s increasingly hard not to be sickened by the overt consumerism of this time of the year. All the advertising for too many things we don’t need and there’s no place to hide behind the knowledge of the damage we consumers have wreaked on our environment.

Apparently there’s a memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family at Finsbury Square in London. Perhaps this is another monument that ought to be removed? Crackers may well be a beautiful augmentation of the Christmas table and add some fun to the moment. But it is only a moment and they are just another layer of landfill when it all comes down to it and we need more of that like we need to colonise Mars. Well actually, we probably will need to colonise Mars if we don’t stop creating landfill like crackers, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve stopped making or buying them even if I have to psyche myself to step away from the tantalisingly presented boxed sets in stores and mourn the creative opportunity loss for my table decorations.

Having said all that, all that remains is to wish you a cracker of a Christmas and a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, hope and love.